Martin Luther King wasn't the only black man with a dream. Langston Hughes expressed his dreams for black people through his poetry.
poetry, poem, Langston Hughes, dream, Martin Luther King, blues
When we think of Martin Luther King Jr., we often think of him as a man with a vision, a dream. For most of us, King's dream comes vividly to life in the words of his most famous speech:
"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Martin Luther King's dream came to life in those eloquent words. Others recorded their personal dreams in other forms. For example, in his series of paintings called "Migration" the artist Jacob Lawrence vividly portrayed the dreams of African Americans who escaped poverty and oppression in the South to follow their dream of freedom and a good job in the North. Other artists put their messages into their music. And poet Langston Hughes often shared his dreams -- his vision for what America could be -- in the poetry he wrote.
Explain to students that today you're going to share with them some short poems in which Langston Hughes expressed his dreams for America. The poems introduced below are short and easy to digest, and can be enjoyed on a fairly literal level.
To begin the lesson, you might try to track down and share a book about Langston Hughes that is written on your students' level. One good backgrounder, appropriate across the elementary grades, is Langston Hughes: American Poet by Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple). If you are unable to track down a good book, the resource below from the Library of Congress will provide an excellent introduction for elementary and middle school students:
Once students are familiar with the story behind Hughes' poetry, introduce one or more of the poems below.
In this poem, Langston Hughes encourages the reader to hold onto his or her dreams. Ask students What kinds of dreams do you think the author of the poem had? Do you think this poem could be talking to other people about their dreams too? Does it "speak" to you about the dreams you have in life? While Hughes is clearly urging black people to keep dreaming -- not to give up their dreams of true freedom and equality -- the poem could be inspiring to all dreamers as it encourages them to never give up on their dreams.
I, Too, Sing America
In this poem, Hughes shares the dream that many black people had at the turn of the last century and beyond: the dream that one day there would be no separation of the races, that all people would be "at the table" and looked at in the same way. The black man or woman in the poem dreams and sings about an "America" ("My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing") just like white people do; but just singing words about liberty does not necessarily make it so. Talk about Hughes' powerful words. Talk about the first and second full stanzas, which compare the America the poet lives in and the America of his or her dreams. Ask Does the poet have faith that one day America might be a place of true equality?
Before sharing this poem, you might want to be sure students understand the reference to "Jim Crow" laws. Those laws, which were enacted in many states, set aside "separate but equal" facilities for black people and white people. Share some sample Jim Crow laws. With that understanding, this Langston poem describes a black child's dream of riding a merry-go-round. It's a dream that every child, black or white, has, but this child -- who is used to riding in the back of the bus -- wonders whether he or she will be allowed to go for a ride because "there ain't no back to a merry-go-round." Ask students to respond to the poem: What is the child's dilemma? How does the child feel? Do you think the child will be allowed to ride?
Harlem (Dream Deferred)
This poem is most appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students. Hughes paints a vivid picture as he wonders what happens to dreams that are not realized. Different people might respond to unrealized dreams in different ways. After sharing the poem, ask students to share their own dreams. Then you might ask Do you think most people live out the dream of their lives? What will happen to you if your dream is not realized? Will you be disappointed? Will it ruin your life? Or will you set aside your dream and move on? Will you take what you're given and make the best of it? Hughes wonders all those things in this short poem.
Extension Activity Langston Hughes wrote many different kinds of poems. He wrote one poem that reflected the great blues songs of the day. "Blues" music grew out of the Deep South. Its roots are in the "Negro spirituals" and the song that slaves sang in the fields as they worked. As blues artist B.B. King once said, "The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation." Today, blues songs come in many different forms; they take on the flavor of the artist. They often, however, reflect on things gone wrong, things that cause sadness. Hughes' poem The Blues reflects that sadness. After sharing the poem with students and discussing it, you might challenge students to write in Hughes' style a blues stanza all their own, a stanza that reflects on some incident in their lives that gave them "the blues."
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Last updated 1/9/2017